Michael Bennett’s debut crime novel Better the Blood is set in Tāmaki Makaurau, with Māori in lead roles and the trauma of colonisation viscerally close to the surface. Here, Bennett, better known as a screenwriter and director, tells the story of his first book.
On a small kawakawa bush outside a dairy in Kawerau, a butterfly flaps its wings. The wind moved by the butterfly wings swirls; it joins other gusts of wind; they are amplified, multiplied, funnelled, eddied. Three weeks later the delicate movement of air from those little flapping butterfly wings is transformed into a freak rainstorm that drenches a playground across from a noodle shop in downtown Seoul, Korea.
Chaos theory has given me as much comfort in my life as any of the religious doctrines I deeply admire: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity. Chaos theory tells me that only retrospectively can you look at the random rainstorm hitting downtown Seoul, and map a strange twisted path back to those butterfly wings in Kawerau. The path is there. The apparently random swirls and eddies in fact have a wondrous, mysterious pattern. You might not be aware of it now. But there are straight lines of sense in the chaos.
My dad, a decorated Spitfire pilot in WWII, gave me a lifelong passion for fighting the important fights. My mum, a brilliant writer who met Dad when she was writing her thesis on his father (my grandfather was the first Māori Bishop of Aotearoa), gave me the love of words and an awe for their power. Because of those gifts, I decided a couple of decades ago to pursue a strange and scary mapless life: the life of a writer.
One night in March 2015 was the equivalent, for me, of that rainstorm in the park opposite the noodle shop. A moment when a pattern emerged from apparent randomness. In the backyard of our house, Teina Pora is having a beer or three. I’d been writing and making filmwork about Teina’s case for several years; my family had become part of his support network. On that night, a bunch of us who had fought for Teina are gathered with Teina and his whānau, watching the verdict from the Privy Council being livestreamed from London.
A few months earlier I’d been at the Privy Council hearing, overjoyed to hear the four (very) British Law Lords and New Zealand’s Dame Sian Elias saying in effect that Teina should never have been arrested, he should never have been taken to trial, he should certainly never have been convicted. Teina couldn’t travel to London for his hearing – because he was a convicted murderer – so I text him from the courtroom, trying not to get his hopes up, but wanting to give him some reassurance. “I think it’s looking quite good bro.”
Fast forward a few months to that March night in our backyard, and the moment the verdict comes in. I’m a bit drunk, I’m ecstatically happy. The justice system worked so long and so hard to repeatedly and brutally screw over this innocent young Māori man. This was, at last, a first step towards fixing the awful ugly mess. I watch my partner Jane and my kids embrace Teina. Teina and I hongi. A man who had become a friend and a part of our whānau; a man who had just been declared innocent after 21 years behind jail bars.
I could never in a million years have planned a life that would take me to that evening. I feel blessed that the swirls and eddies of my career delivered me to that hongi. That moment will always make me feel like chaos theory has it right.
Better The Blood is a crime thriller novel, and it’s about to go on sale. A series of seemingly unconnected murders are linked when brilliant Māori cop Hana Westerman realises each victim is a descendant of different members of a British Army troop who wrongly and brutally executed a Māori chief during the colonisation of New Zealand. There were six members of the troop. Two descendants are dead. Four to go.
I wrote this book to entertain the hell out of the reader. I love crime thrillers. It’s my favourite genre. I adore books like No Country For Old Men and Blacktop Wasteland and Winter Counts, screen stories like True Detective, Seven, Broadchurch, Squid Game, Sherwood. As a true fan I want to deliver the things that excite me with those amazing thrillers: high-adrenaline storytelling, keeping the reader turning the pages, keeping them awake at night until they reach the final full stop of the final chapter.
But if you write, entertaining is just one part of it. You write because you have something to say, something burning inside, something you feel is important. In creating Better The Blood I want to offer something more between the lines – to talk about some things that are important to me, about where we are, 200 years after colonisation. For me that’s as big a part of the reason to write, as giving the reader a compelling, thrilling, visceral story.
This novel has been described by Ngaio Marsh Awards founder Craig Sisterson as “the first crime thriller about a Māori detective, written by a Māori author”, and if that’s true, I’m humbled. Hana Westerman is based on many strong extraordinary women in my world; aunties, my partner, my sisters, my daughters, my mother – Mum’s maiden name is Westerman.
Hana on one level faces challenges that are very relatable. She’s a woman in a male-dominated career, a Māori in a primarily non-Māori police hierarchy, she’s fighting to be the best mum she can be to her strong-willed and erratic teen daughter, her ex has been elevated above her and is now her boss. But she’s also facing a completely unique and terrifying challenge: a race against the clock to stop a killer before they kill again. I wanted this pursuit to be unsettling, complex, shifting ground for the cop and for the reader.
Hana finds that the killer is no psychopath; the opposite, every time they kill, it tears them apart. Ultimately, the hunter and the hunted are drawn deeper and deeper into each other’s orbits – each is changed and affected by the other. What may seem black and white, good versus bad, becomes more complex. At a certain point in the novel DSS Hana Westerman (and I hope, the reader) comes to understand why the killer is doing what they are doing, comes to understand the things the killer is talking about are real and important, even while knowing the killer’s solutions are very very wrong. It was unsettling and confronting to write this pursuit, but perhaps it’s when things are most uncomfortable that you’re getting closest to the difficult truths.
One of the joys of writing this book is that it was a bit of a family affair. I developed the characters and narrative with my partner Jane Holland. My daughter Māhina (a painter and visual artist) created the Māori design used on the cover and throughout the book, and for the covers of the Dutch and US editions. My younger daughter Matariki (a poet and writer / director) wrote both the song ‘BROWN AND SCREAMING’ which features in the book, and the poem quoted in the addendum.
We’ve been translated into nine languages before actually going on sale in a bookstore anywhere, and I have to pinch myself even writing that sentence. I wasn’t planning any of this when I decided to write a scary book, but it’s exciting that this is a time when the voices of indigenous storytellers are being heard, and I’m humbled. You flap your wings, and who knows where the whirls and eddies will end up.
Better the Blood is being adapted as a six-part drama series via 10,000 Company.
Better the Blood by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster, $35) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.